(Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the Oct. 3, 2016 issue of Golfweek.)
Golf owes a great deal to Arnold Palmer, but perhaps his legacy is no more keenly felt than in the British Open. The game’s oldest major championship might not be held in such great esteem if not for Palmer.
Although Sam Snead won the Open in 1946 and Ben Hogan triumphed in 1953, American involvement in the post-World War II years was almost nonexistent. Palmer made his peers see the light.
In 1960, Palmer won the Masters and U.S. Open and had his eyes on the Grand Slam. The British Open’s 100th anniversary was held at St. Andrews that year. What better stage for the game’s marquee player to reveal his talents to British golf fans?
Palmer made the trip and finished second to Kel Nagle. He returned in 1961 and won at Royal Birkdale, and successfully defended his championship the following year at Troon. His name on the old Claret Jug was nothing compared with the influence it had on the other leading Americans.
“The R&A and the Open Championship will forever remember Arnold for coming over in 1960, and then winning in 1961 and 62,” former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said.
“It was still in the immediate post-war era, and many Americans didn’t come over. Hogan had won in 1953, obviously, but Arnold came and brought the others with him.“It was his decision to come and play that persuaded other top Americans to see the Open Championship as a true major in its own right. He rejuvenated the championship.”
Palmer couldn’t make the trip to St. Andrews for the 1964 Open, but it didn’t stop him from influencing the championship.
“He persuaded Tony Lema to come in 1964,” Dawson said. “Lema even used Arnold’s regular Open caddie, Tip Anderson, and won. So even when Arnold wasn’t there, he had an influence on the championship.”
Too many Americans to name have won in the intervening years since Palmer’s 1960 appearance.
Dawson concedes they might not have their names etched on the old Claret Jug if not for Palmer’s pilgrimage.
“We can’t really say where the Open Championship would be if Arnold hadn’t decided to play in 1960, and continue to support it the way he did,” he said. “There’s every chance it might not have the same prestige.”
Dawson, who retired in 2015 after 16 years as the R&A’s chief executive, met Palmer many times over the years.
“My first impression of him never changed,” Dawson said. “He was charming, warm, humorous, immediately likeable, always had time to talk to you. He was very down-to-earth, with no airs or graces. He had star quality, not just in golf but in life, too.”
Dawson likely speaks for all British golf fans when he says of Palmer: “The Open owes him a great debt.”